Francis Picabia: Synthesizing Inner Emotions And Exterior Events

As one of the important figures who studied from what the Cubists have achieved and came out from their success, Francis Picabia gradually found his way of interpreting the relation between subject matter and the image. 1912 to 1914 was an important period of time for Picabia’s art creation, since in 1912 the artist established his own theory of abstraction and the method of realizing it on canvas through painting. The Armory Show and Picabia’s one man show at Gallery “291” in New York served as the main inspiration for the paintings he later on created in Paris back from New York. The journey from France to the United States also contributed the content for a series of paintings Picabia created from 1913 to 1914, further developing the artist’s theory of converting his own emotional feelings through abstract paintings.

Je revois en souvenir ma chere Udnie (I see Again in Memory My Dear Udnie) was one of the last oil paintings Picabia finished before WWI started and interrupted his art creation. Similar to the previous large-scale paintings that the artist produced after coming back from New York, this piece is also painted on wall-sized canvas, around two meters in height and width. The subject of the painting is once again referring to the Polish origin Parisienne dancer Picabia met on his cross-continental journey, Stasia Napierskowska. Being influenced besides Udnie and Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), there is also a possible connection with the drawing of Fille nee sans mere (Girl Born without a Mother) due to similar curvature shapes and tube-like object. The painting is created with a calm, lightly desaturated color palette. Comparing to the previous pair of paintings, a separation between the figure and surrounding appears to be more prominent in I see Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, as the warm tone and flesh tone colors are used at the center of the canvas, and grey, metallic colors at the surrounding sides. The dancer is composed with mostly oval and curvature shapes that could be referencing a dress in movement, and pink flesh tone stripes that could be the body. There is also a repetition of three tube like objects connecting the dancer with a greyish surrounding, which suggest a connection to machine components. Unlike the dancer, pointy sharp edges appear several times for the surrounding shapes. The greyish color palette also suggests a reference of machinery, a topic that Picabia had showed interest in 1912. The parallel between machines and modern life was first suggested by his love of cars. The sepia and brown bottom part points out the direction and gravitation of the painting, which almost acts as the ground of the image, creating a shift from the disorientation of Udnie and Edtaonisl. Though the presence of brush strokes is almost invisible except at some edges of the shapes, the painting is not appearing to be flat or weightless. The depth of layering becomes more evident due to the light and shade relations between the dancer and both the center dark area (gap in between the flesh tone stripes) and the outer edge of the painting. The chiaroscuro of shapes is still majorly based on individual shape with their own representations, but Picabia did introduced light relations between nearby shapes resulting in a more unified structure.

The name of the painting was selected from Petit Larousse dictionary, when the original line being “Dying, he saw again in memory his dear Argos”, the artist replaced with the name Udnie. This clearly suggest the content of this painting was Picabia gaining inspiration from his own memory of a personal experience. This pattern of recollecting and recreating image with painting was explained by the artist through a comparison to music composition. “They are memories of America, evocations from there which, subtly opposed like musical harmonies, become representative of an idea, of a nostalgia, of a fugitive impression. ” The idea of harmony is carried out with a carefully decided pictorial structure with balanced positioning of shapes and color choices. It was not the first time the artist used music as an analogy to explain his theory, as he has told the New York American magazine how composing shapes and colors was a process of seeking for harmony and balance, similar to the way musicians seek for musical harmony, although at the same period of time musicians were starting to break the tradition of musical structure and harmony. Additionally, Picabia was not the first abstract artist to make this connection of painting with music composition. Wassily Kandinsky published his statement “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” in 1912, claiming that the contemporary quest in painting of expressing the “inner world” was to gain the same freedom as music has achieved. Similar to how Kandinsky aimed to create a new harmony of painting of expressing consciousness and spiritual feelings, Picabia was also seeking for an expression from the inside, yet in a more visceral and personal appearance.

In the statement that Picabia created for his “291” exhibition, the artist claimed that in order to present pure reality, painting could no longer be restricted by an imitative form, instead it need to be created with new abstract subjective forms and colors to transform the “qualitative form”. “Qualitative form”, according to the artist, is the emotion and psychological feelings that the subject evokes, in this case from the artist’s own objective experience. As Picabia came to this conclusion and applied to his later paintings, I see Again in Memory My Dear Udnie loses all traces of directly identifiable figure to prevent imitative quality. The presence of the figure was only depicted through non-geometric forms and related color tones. Picabia also extended this idea to name the paintings, explaining that “… a purer sort of painting, in a single dimension and without a title. Each picture will have its own name, created just for it. ” The only way of approaching the subject and content that Picabia want to express is to gain the feeling of a visceral presentation and an impression of mechanical modern life through the composed imagery. However, abandoning imitative motifs for objective shapes raised the question of whether or not the audience would be able to recognize the subject and experience the exact sensation the image was to express. Picabia seemed to be confident about knowing the public being either unfamiliar or puzzled with his method, claiming that the public would be able to recognize just as they managed to learn music law and experience music as an abstract form of art expression. According to the reaction from critics and public at both the Armory Show and “291” Exhibition, Picabia shocked the American audience once again after the Cubists, gaining both negative and some positive feedback of his work. Two comments from (Charles Caffin) and (Marius De Zaya) could also be applied to the works Picabia created after his New York exhibitions.

Caffin wrote to compare the Cubist works and Picabia’s, that “Picasso could never work without dealing with objectivity while Picabia forgets matter to express only, maybe the memory of something that has happened”, and De Zaya stated that Picabia “does not proceed from the concrete to the abstraction, but from abstraction to a spiritual impression of the concrete. ” Both of the comments gave an approval of Picabia’s theory for abstract painting and an understanding of the actual process of how the artist reached the visual outcome. The subject is still present, but appears only through an abstract visual composition for a direct experience linking to Picabia’s personal memory. With WWI breaking out in July 1914, Picabia’s art creation was interrupted as he was called by the army for military service. The artist also wrote to Alfred Stieglitz in 1914 about Gallery “291”, stating that “the 1st August 1914 put a full stop – to the brilliant and always creative activities of the poets and artists of Paris. Those same poets and artists did not follow the same path but engaged on a long task of clarification and destruction of the old myths and values. ”

Whether he was referring to the artists themselves serving in the war was an interruption of creation or hinting the start of another shift in art direction, after the war Picabia left behind his method of expressing psychological feeling through abstract painting to pursue a new machine aesthetic. Being one of the last paintings before Picabia abandoning his study from 1912 to 1914, I see Again in Memory My Dear Udnie is no doubt a successful outcome of Picabia’s theory of abstract painting, and a more refined work comparing to the previous New York inspired pieces. It reflected the methodology of “objectivity of subjectivity” presentation and created a profound image influencing the development of abstract art.

15 Jun 2020
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